PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109. TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
Contact: Jane Platt
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 28, 1996
STARDUST COMET MISSION PASSES KEY MILESTONE
NASA's Stardust mission, which will gather samples of dust as it flies by a
comet and return them to Earth, has passed a key milestone with completion
of its preliminary design review.
The project team got a thumbs up on its mission plans from an independent
review board appointed by the space agency. Dr. Wesley T. Huntress, NASA's
associate administrator for space science, confirmed the review board's
conclusion that the project is ready to move forward into its development
"This tells us we are fully on track, ready to meet our schedule and cost
control constraints," said Stardust Project Manager Ken Atkins of NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA.
Stardust is the latest in NASA's series of Discovery missions, which teams
NASA with industry and universities to launch low-cost spacecraft in a short
time frame with highly focused scientific goals.
Successful completion of the review marks the end of the mission's concept
definition phase -- known in the aerospace industry as Phase B -- and the
start of design, development and fabrication, known as Phases C and D.
NASA is committing nearly $118 million for Stardust development, with an
additional $37 million necessary for mission operations. The next major
review will come in June 1997 with a critical design review to confirm that
design is complete and subsystems are on schedule for spacecraft
integration, scheduled to begin in February 1998. Launch is planned for
During its journey through space, Stardust will loop twice around the Sun to
collect interstellar dust particles before it flies past Comet Wild-2 in
2004. Stardust will gather dust and other materials spewed from the comet's
tail and return the samples to Earth in 2006 for scientific study. The
mission will be the first ever to return material from a solar system object
other than the Moon.
As the most primitive bodies in the solar system, comets hold great
fascination for scientists, who believe they may reveal vital clues about
the birth of the planets and the formation of life. The cosmic leftovers
from planet formation, comets are rich in organic compounds and may have
played a key role in the development of early life on Earth.
Mission planners faced a tough challenge -- how to capture comet dust as it
whizzes by the spacecraft about seven times faster than a bullet fired from
a rifle. The answer came in the form of aerogel, a sponge-like silica gel in
which 99 percent of the volume is empty space. When a speck of comet dust
hits the aerogel, it slows down gradually and comes to a stop, burying
itself safely in the flexible material. Because aerogel is mostly
transparent, scientists can trace the tracks to retrieve the comet dust.
The minuscule bits of cargo will be stored in a capsule designed to separate
from the spacecraft's main body and descend into Earth's atmosphere, landing
in Utah. The main spacecraft will continue in orbit around the Sun
Scientists are eagerly awaiting this opportunity to "get their hands on"
particles of comet dust. "We guarantee the return of 1,000 particles larger
than one-quarter the size of a human hair," said Stardust Principal
Investigator Dr. Don Brownlee of the University of Washington. "Most likely
there will be many additional particles of various sizes."
Brownlee leads the team collaborating on Stardust. The spacecraft and sample
return capsule are being built by Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver,
CO. The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena
for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC; JPL is also developing
the spacecraft's navigational camera. Stardust's cometary and interstellar
dust analyzer instrument is provided by Jochen Kissel through the Max Planck
Institute in Germany.
Last Updated: November 26, 2003